DEAR CAROLYN: I have an older sister who was incredibly abusive toward me as a child. She was controlling, manipulative – the works.
She and her husband (whom she’s pretty mean to already) are trying for a baby. When I heard the news, I got so upset I nearly threw up. I’m so afraid that child will grow up the way I did, and even more afraid it won’t be as lucky as I was in having the ability to get away and live a decent life.
Part of me always hoped I’d be able to leave her behind forever, but now I feel like I have an obligation to stay involved just in case. I don’t know what to do. Any thoughts?
DEAR ANONYMOUS: What a tough spot to be in, I’m sorry. It’s not as if you can just swoop across the tracks to save this baby from the oncoming train. What you have is a projection of possible future harm to a possible future person based on past experience and current spectating – and, to act on your speculation, you’d have to impose yourself on a couple’s private business, most likely to no avail, while also facing down your own ghosts.
The easiest answer, of course, is to use your unknowns and their privacy as justification for butting out.
The simplistic answer is to stand up to your sister and tell her husband about your history with her, ideally with her present, because your conscience won’t abide anything less.
But the only answers that ever work are realistic ones, and I don’t think the easy or simplistic routes can realistically put this matter to rest.
Considering what would be realistic here brings to mind a phrase used by my kids’ old school, “supported risk.” They applied it in a very different context, of course, but the concept still fits: Challenge people to ask more of themselves, to do something they’re not sure they can do – but don’t just throw them out there. Instead, ensure they have the tools and guidance to make their goals possible.
The risk of getting involved is self-evident. You could be berated, ostracized, blamed for a marriage’s demise. And, you could be wrong, with all the attendant consequences. That’s why I won’t advise the risk without also advising appropriate support.
The obvious source is a skilled therapist, who can: help you assess the wisdom and urgency of getting involved; provide ongoing emotional refuge should you opt to intervene; and help you accept the limits of intervention, especially if you’re not able to prevent the outcome that sickened you just to imagine.
You may have such a supporter in your life already, though, so look around. Are there other witnesses to your sister’s treatment of you in childhood, and of her husband now? Is this someone outside her gravitational pull, and therefore who can remain objective while both keeping you honest and having your back? Who can remain mindful of boundaries?
I realize this issue is time-sensitive – and my answer acutely unsatisfying – but sometimes the only responsible answer is to bring in someone who lives closer to the situation than I do for fact-checking and fireproofing. Your brave impulse is to make sure any child won’t be alone in this; please give yourself that same gift.
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